Long Reads

Nikita Gill on how poetry has the power to transform your life

“Where others hurt you, poetry can give you the motivation to carry on…”

When I was a little girl, my mother didn’t sing me lullabies. Instead she told me what we called “Baats” – poetic reminisces of my mother’s earliest memories, stories passed down from her mother, and her mother’s mother. She told them beautifully. 

They were short, succinct, filled with lessons and wisdom, mixed with Punjabi and Kashmiri folklore and folk songs, as well as the politics and battles of the area. I adored every word of these stories and listened to them with rapt attention. There, in the Delhi monsoons, with a cup of tea in my hand and Mama’s stories in my ear, I learned what a deeply emotional and personal thing poetry was.

When I turned 12 and encountered a different kind of poetry, the kind written by Robert Frost, such as Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, I realised the words could take on a thousand different forms. That it was not restricted to a certain experience. Instead, it was the amalgamation of several different experiences, written in so many different ways. There was no “right” or “wrong” way to approach poetry. And that made me want to write it. 

You see, since I was a child, I had been told that I was oversensitive. I let everything get to me. I got overwhelmed with the world around me far too quickly. But when I picked up a pen, I felt stronger. I was able to put all those deep and painful feelings onto a sheet of paper and release what felt like sheer toxicity from my body, before it threatened to overwhelm me. I always felt better after. 

But it did make me wonder: “is there anyone else out there as oversensitive as me? Who feels as lonely as me?”

Growing up, reading was what I turned to in times of crisis. Poetry changed me as a human being. I considered the words of Emily Dickinson sacred, while Sylvia Plath was able to articulate feelings that felt too big to fit in my child’s body. Dr. Maya Angelou and Lucille Clifton later validated my experience as a young woman of colour. The fact that these women were writing to us from dozens of years away transformed books into time travelling devices in my head. And I began to realise how much of the trajectory of my life was tied to words, and to poetry.

When I started sharing my work on social media, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew what I wanted: to know I wasn’t alone. I was seeking validation for my thoughts, and my blog became a very public notebook. I always saw it as a sort of diary – just a diary that other people could see. For months, there was no reaction, and I grew comfortable with my anonymous little corner of the internet, tucked away somewhere inside information superhighways that no one might ever discover. 

Until one day, when I logged into my blog and almost logged straight out again in fright. Over a thousand notifications were flashing in front of me. At least 10 private messages filled my otherwise empty inbox. 

One of my shortest poems, written on public transport, had gone viral. And the messages in my inbox were confirmation of the thing which I had been searching for: I was, indeed, not alone in my flawed, terrible and sometimes extremely difficult-to-handle feelings.

One of the messages was from a young woman who had recently been through a brutal sexual assault at the hands of a family member. She told me she had found hope in the words. Another was from an older gentleman who was in the middle of a painful divorce. He told me the words uplifted him. These people were simply writing to tell me how they felt. And the platform which I had started as a simple internet journal began to grow into a community. 

As the community grew, I began to ask questions in the captions of my posts. To know that my readers saw my comment sections as safe spaces to share their personal stories, to start conversations and to empathise with strangers, made me realise just how important and necessary poetry had become.

What made me even happier, however, was how many other women poets like me were also building similar platforms, creating poems that addressed issues like body image and sexual assault, bullying, their childhoods, abuse, recovery, and healing. Women like Yrsa Daley-Ward, Amanda Lovelace, Trista Mateer, Lang Leav and Savannah Brown. Rupi Kaur created a book of poetry from her bedroom that helped her recover from her trauma. It went on to become an international bestseller that speaks to the trauma of millions of people in the world. 

On Youtube, spoken word brought us the talents of Blythe Baird, Sabrina Benaim and Olivia Gatwood, addressing the experience of growing up as a young woman, as well as mental illness, eating disorders and periods – issues that were otherwise considered taboo. These women spoke their truths with a fearlessness that is to be envied. Through a screen, they created words that felt like warm hugs to aching hearts, validation for others, and a space for so many people, especially young women who had been silenced, to share some of their most painful, traumatic memories. 

Where people had been feeling powerless, they now felt motivated. They came away from the experience of reading and listening to poetry feeling better, stronger and empowered.

Then, 2016 happened. The world felt like it was turning on itself. It was an abyss of sorts, where suddenly everything became progressive and regressive at the same time. Where social media had once been an escape for so many people, used as a highlights reel or a place to wish other people well, it suddenly became a place of political discourse that was toxic. I say toxic because of the cruel nature of the words that people flung at each other with ease from a keyboard, the sheer magnitude of vile racist, sexist and homophobic commentary that was suddenly and aggressively normalised as “opinion”. 

It is clear that now, more than ever, using your voice to fight bigotry is necessary. Poetry has slowly become more political, and justifiably so. In a time of turmoil, words have the incredible power to soothe or to exacerbate a situation. They also have the power to ignite revolution. 

Poets give wisdom, encouragement, nourishment and fury in their words, whilst also addressing complex socio-political situations. Poetry then becomes impact. It becomes activism. It becomes change. It becomes the voice of the voiceless, and the advocate of the marginalised.

And the poet? The poet takes on the role of ambassador for empathy and compassion. Of teacher. Of advocate. Of activist.

This is what poetry can do. It can fill you with courage and, where you lacked strength, it can make a hero out of you. Where others hurt you, it can give you the motivation to carry on.

How? Well, just read this verse from Dr. Maya Angelou, and tell me if you do not feel empowered:

“You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul by Nikita Gill is out now (Trapeze, £12.99)

Read, share and celebrate poetry with the nation on National Poetry Day (4 October)

Main image: Unsplash

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